There is laundry currently drying on the spot where I gave birth to my son.
We inflated the birth pool around my due date, even though it took up about a third of our living room, just to be ready. It loomed large those next eight days while we waited for him to make an appearance.
His birth story begins, for me, a few weeks before I finally got to hold him in my arms. It starts the day I finally voiced the niggling emotion in my heart: “I’m scared.” I’d been trying to deny it to myself for a while, trying to find some inner peace that would expel all fear. I still had the voices from my first birth ringing in my head, telling me that pain increases when you are afraid, so you better not be scared.
But I hadn’t been afraid last time. Not until the pain was unbearable. And then I was so afraid – afraid I was doing it all wrong, that I wasn’t strong enough to birth my daughter myself.
It’s a sobering thing when, just short weeks before you’re expecting to repeat the process, you realise you are still carrying a hefty amount of shame and disappointment over how the first birth went, despite writing it out, despite talking about it with so many people. Despite knowing that those feelings are lies, that you did all, were all, you were meant to be in that moment.
And so I googled it. I googled “fear and birth” and jumped down the rabbit hole of emotion that I’d kept tied up a long time. I stayed up way past my bedtime on multiple evenings and I found others like me, who’d recited endless birth mantras about feeling no fear, embracing a calm birth, releasing tension – and then carried the trauma from a painful, scary and loud birth. A normal one, then. Fear is normal. Especially when you’ve experienced the pain once and you know what’s coming. Childbirth can kill a woman, still kills many women around the world. It’s ok to approach it with some trepidation.
And yet. Oh and yet. I wanted to embrace this birthing experience, not be terrified of it. I wanted the empowerment I’d heard some women speak of when they talked of their births.
The answer came in a book I’d read just recently about creativity. Liz Gilbert is a huge influence on my thinking, and I ate up her newest book Big Magic about creativity and writing. And now her words spoke to me as I approached the finale of this greatest act of creation. She talks about the deal she made with her fear:
“You’re allowed to have a seat and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you’re not allowed to have a vote.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
I wondered, what would it look like to welcome fear into my birthing process? To not try to blindly shut it out (impossible anyway, as Liz writes), but to recognise it, allow it to be there, but refuse to allow it to control me or the process?
I thought about this a lot in those last few weeks. I allowed myself to feel scared and cry it out. I allowed myself to voice the fears about not being mentally or physically strong enough, about being unprepared to mother two children, my fears of just how painful it was going to be again. I asked Rasmus, if he heard me express my fear during labour, not to respond with “oh don’t be scared!” (pretty natural), but to say something like, “that’s ok, you’re still doing great.”
So I began the birth of my second child scared, but feeling so much more ready despite that fear.
I want to tell you, I think this made all the difference. Really. I’ve written before in Kaya’s birth story about my ambivalence towards the hypnobirthing approach, but now I’m even more sure that it can be incredibly damaging to tell women that the only way to have a “good” birth is to not be afraid, to remain entirely calm and collected throughout the whole process*.
Oskar’s birth looked very different to Kaya’s, although they were both finally born in the water. I was only in advanced labour for 90 minutes, but those 90 minutes were incredibly hard. There was not a single moment I was not wishing it away, but at the same time, I leaned into the pain in a way I had not experienced during Kaya’s birth. Then, the pain had only evoked panic and fear. This time the fear was still there, but it was not the central element. I shook off all those harmful hypnobirthing ideas that the only good birth is the quiet one and I was as loud as I needed to be. And this time, released from the shame-factor of my noise, it was an aid to me in labour. I used my own powerful sounds to focus myself on what was happening, to help manage my breathing, to submit to what my body was doing.
Let me be clear: I was still scared. There were still many moments I was unsure if it was going well and I relied heavily on the support of Rasmus and our two wonderful midwives to encourage me and keep me going. And I think that is how it is meant to be. We are made to be in community with each other, and so too birth is a process undertaken surrounded by a strong support network. I needed them, but that was my strength, not my weakness.